Connecting with Teens

Updated: Sep 4, 2018

I have a pretty emotionally exhausting job, working with youth coming out of juvenile prison. My job is to build a relationship with them, despite the countless adults that have let them down throughout their lives. No easy task.

So coming home at the end of a long day, walking in my front door, I don’t always have the emotional or physical energy my own kids need or deserve. Everyday I have to make the conscious effort to greet my teenagers who are off in their corners of the house. I have to seek them out, and often the response is a grunt, a nod, or on a really good day, “What?!”


It probably just feels that way. But even if it is reality, I try. I really try to make an effort to connect to my teens.


What I’ve discovered is many parents, foster or not, adoptive or not, struggle to connect with their teenagers. Because it’s hard. They don’t run to the door to greet you. They hardly acknowledge you when you greet them! They have developed interests and habits that don’t always match my own. They stay up late, and love to nap during the day. They often speak a language I don’t even understand!


But, they so desperately want to connect with us. They are insecure and anxious and want to know they are loved and liked.


Trust Based Relational Interventions (TBRI) teaches the importance of connecting and engaging with your kids who have been through traumatic early starts in their life. Some of the phrases you might hear from there include, behavioral matching & playful engagement. I have often heard parents say they can see how to try this with children, but struggle with teens. So let me break it down a bit for you.


With behavioral matching, I am choosing to mirror their physical position while we are talking that builds an attachment between us. I will watch how they sit at the table or lay on the couch and slowly adjust myself to let them know we are connected. I will try my best not to stand over them, but even make myself physically smaller than they are, so that they will feel comfortable and relaxed. Not threatened but loved.


When we speak about playful engagement it is my effort to learn about what they find fun (in our house its a lot of basketball) and then choosing to engage in that activity (no matter how bad I am). When we are playing together, just like with a small child, I am letting them know I am interested in them and want to have fun with them. Does your child like video games? Can you endure an hour of gaming with them this weekend? Does your child like youtube? Can you find a funny video to text them? How does your child play and how can you join them every now and then?


But, there have been a few tricks that I’ve picked up along the way, none of them fool proof or ironclad. It’s really just been trial and error, and I’ve often fumbled through it. I really don’t enjoy gaming, but I have sat down for an hour of NBA2K here and there. I just don’t love it, especially when I’m exhausted. So I thought I’d share a couple of other tricks that worked for both me and the kids. Maybe you can build off them and make them your own. Maybe they will help you match and play with those big kids in your home today.


Our oldest son loves walks. I would say it was the single most memorable activity of my time with him in high school. Usually it would begin by either one of us suggesting, tonight might be a good night for one of our walks. This meant we could not begin walking before 10 and I’d better strap on a good set of shoes because we would be gone well into tomorrow. This behavior matching almost always involved some type of food, whether from the gas station, local fast food place, or ordering a whole pizza which was consumed by the side of the road at midnight. We had a hot and cold relationship while he was in high school, but one of the things that kept us connected was these walks.


Walks didn’t work with all of our kids. Actually, they only worked with our oldest son. But one thing remained true with all of the kids, talking always worked better if we didn’t have to sit face-to-face. Car rides were and are a great opportunity to talk. In the case of our younger son, late night car rides were a great opportunity for me to listen! On Friday and Saturday nights after picking him up from being with his friends, I would often get an ear full. Sometimes it is serious topics. Sometimes it is his latest favorite rapper. Although it is never which girl he’s into (that gets kept very private!). So I try my best, as often as I’m able, to be ready to offer to be the parent that picks him up at night, and then be prepared to listen.


I’ve learned that with our daughters, I just need to be ready when they are ready. Countless times I’ve been looking at my phone and one of them will plop down next to me and begin talking. I make my best effort to put my phone down and tune in to her. I want her to know she’s got my undivided attention. There is nothing on my phone more important than her. Even if it means we are talking about a new skincare technique.


A few months back I was working late at two and a half jobs, and often when I was home, I was exhausted on the couch. I knew I had to make an effort to connect but our family budget was also tight. I began taking them out individually to McDonald’s and ordering a drink. It didn’t cost more than $2. We could sit there awhile. I didn’t think it offered much hope of being successful, but what the heck? What I didn’t realize was how much the kids were going to value that one-on-one time. We have had a lot of good conversations in those McDonald’s booths, getting our free refills!


Recently I found another strategy to help connect. Our kids will often migrate to the kitchen at various hours in the day and night. Typically their eyes are glued to their phones. One day a few weeks ago, I placed myself at the kitchen table and played solitaire with a deck of cards. Suddenly their eyes became unglued and they started talking as they ate their food. I kept my eyes on the Aces, but made sure my ears were open. I responded to the conversation but continued to play the game. It seemed that the noticed I wasn’t focused on a screen and it was easier for them to open up knowing I was slightly distracted by a deck of cards, but totally able to engage with them because we were at the table together. My solitaire playing grandmother would be proud.


I challenge you to try something to connect with your teens this week. It might work, it might not. But you will never know till you try, again and again.


Let me know how it goes!


- Roy




For more information, check out this article from the Wall Street Journal on the importance of connecting with your teens.

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© 2018 by Trish Jonker

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